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Antonio Lopéz de Santa Anna: the accidental feminist

26 August 2016

On 20 July 1848, at Seneca Falls, New York, Elizabeth Cady Stanton read to the approval of the first Women’s Rights Convention the “Declaration of Sentiments”.  Among the complaints of women in the United States was that the laws made by men “made her, if married, civilly dead”.

Santa_Anna-1The Women’s Rights Convention was less than five months after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had been signed, ceding to the United States among others the future states of California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.  While a good part of the American annexation was “thanks”, in large part to General Santa Anna’s not-so-brilliant generalship, it was — as Santa Anna would later claim in his memoirs — a necessary separation, given the difficulty of managing territory too far from the Mexican heartland to be effectively managed.   Or, the Mexican patriarch was having his revenge on gringo patriarchy.

When the Mexicans withdrew, they left behind something women in the “old” United States had never enjoyed, and exactly what Mrs. Stanton had complained about in Seneca Falls:  under Mexican law, a married woman was not “civilly dead”.  She might be wounded, but still lived and breathed.

The rights of Mexican women were, like everywhere else, restricted, of course: but, in Mexico (and most civil law nations) a married woman did not completely lose her identity, nor her economic rights.  Unlike English Common Law (which was the basis of the United States legal codes), when a woman married, there was “coverture”:  she surrendered all her legal rights and assets to her husband.  Under Roman Law, and the later Spanish and Mexican codes, married women maintained there separate identity in the law (one reason a married woman does not legally assume her husband’s surname), although a husband could make financial decisions on behalf of his wife in most instances.  The exception was when the marriage contract specifically separated the assets brought into a marriage (usually a dowry).   Otherwise, all assets were “community property”… the community being the husband and wife.

What Mrs. Stanton and her posse were decrying as an injustice in 1849 had never been part of the legal code in the Stantonnew territories (nor in Louisiana, which had Spanish marriage laws, although the territory had briefly returned to French control before being annexed by the United States*) .  If you want to know How The West Was Won,  it was that several of the new territories, but simply adopting the existing marriage laws, made settlement more attractive to single women, which made it more probable that the single men would stick around.  A few, like Utah and Wyoming… neither seeing it likely to have the 60,000 male voters required to apply for statehood,  saw in the Mexican marriage laws that preserved a woman’s identity as an independent economic person, a shortcut to statehood:  both granting women the vote in 1870.

* As Stanley Kowalski said (slightly incorrectly, but close enough) in A Streetcar Named Desire:  “Now we got here in the state of Louisiana what’s known as the Napoleonic code. You see, now according to that, what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband also, and vice versa.”



Matsuda, Mari J.  “The West and the Legal Status of Women: Explanations of Frontier Feminism” (Journal of the West 24 (1985): 47-56

Lopéz de Santa Anna, Antonio.  The Eagle (Austin, State House Press, 1988)

Declaration of Sentiments (1849)

Allesandri Rodríguez, Arturo.  “De los Régimines Matrimoniales en Genera”l.  Cuadernos Juridicos y Sociales IX (Santiago: Universidad de Chile, nd).


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